Winter walking tour highlights storied past at new Coldwater Spring park near Mississippi River


Take a winter walking tour of Coldwater Spring, the new park located between Minnehaha Park and Fort Snelling, and you can catch a glimpse of the area’s storied past. If you’re lucky, one of our local historians will be on the tour and can point out the location of homes from a mid-1880s settlement or can talk about why Coldwater is considered by many to be the birthplace of Minnesota.

National Park Ranger Nick Krasch leads a winter walking tour at Coldwater Spring.

NPS Unveils a Park

When the National Park Service (NPS) took over the site in 2010, it was nothing close to what you would imagine a National Park to be. The land had been home to the Bureau of Mines, and when it was shuttered in 1996 its buildings were abandoned, even office equipment had been left behind. Buckthorn ran wild through masses of oaks, and Coldwater Creek disappeared into a steel culvert.

NPS set out to restore the area, and its task list was long. Fortunately it had the help of many volunteers to transform the space into what it is today, and although the work isn’t done, the park has come a long way. NPS began in the fall of 2011 by sketching out its plans for park and then moved onto the heavy lifting – demolishing all twelve of the former Bureau of Mines buildings, removing many trees, and daylighting the creek by removing the culvert and installing walking stones.

The once-hidden creek flows down to a waterfall and then on to the Mississippi.

Coldwater’s Storied Past

The fresh water of Coldwater Spring is what has drawn people to the area for thousands of years. The Mississippi River Fund reports, “evidence shows that people first lived in the area some 10,000 years ago. Paleo-Indians hunted giant bison, great bears, and other animals in the region.”

Coldwater Spring, once known as Camp Coldwater, was the first Anglo-American settlement in Minnesota. Soldiers camped at the Spring while they waited for Fort Snelling to be built. A Minnesota Historical Society plaque notes, “The clear, cold spring water helped restore the men and their families who lived in tents and elm bark huts here during three summers while they built the permanent stone fort nearby.” Once the soldiers moved to the completed Fort, the land became home to squatters who formed a community of more than 150 people that lived on the land surrounding Coldwater Spring. According to the National Park Service, this settlement was comprised of blacksmith shops, farms, fenced lots, outbuildings, and a trading post.

Other aspects of the area’s history are the source of controversy between historians, activists, and NPS. As Kate Havelin from the Mississippi River Fund commented, “There is a lot of history here that we know and hints of things we don’t know.” What is unknown, or at least disagreed upon, is the sacred significance of the site to certain Native American tribes. A historical study by Barbara Henning for NPS concludes, “We find no evidence that the area and the spring have had specific Native American names nor have they been tied to specific spirits or spiritual practices historically.” However, the NPS did state that Coldwater is “culturally important for some Indian people for ritual and ceremonial reasons.”

Coldwater Spring is 58 degrees, and steam from the reservoir rises into the winter air. Look a little closer into the water and you can see fish, whose appearance is one of the mysteries of Coldwater.

What’s Next for Coldwater Spring

The Mississippi River Fund is working with the National Park Service to help restore Coldwater Spring. The organizations are working with volunteers to rebuild the park’s prairie, oak savanna, and bluff-top woodlands. Volunteer events are planned to plant native plants, shrubs, and trees. You can also donate a tree to the oak savanna. To take a winter tour yourself, attend the Snowshoe at Coldwater event on February 9th at 1 PM. Check the Mississippi River Fund website for more Coldwater events.

For historical images of Coldwater Spring, check out the visual history.

Coldwater Spring is located at 5601 Minnehaha Park Drive South, Fort Snelling, MN 55111.

Also in the Daily Planet:

New park opens at Coldwater Spring near Mississippi River (Steve Young-Burns, 2012)